Before the Chinese dragon was chosen, a very different animal adorned China's first stamp...
Four very significant elephants will charge across the auction block at Interasia's Hong Kong auctions, this weekend (July 31-August 1) - alongside two of the most important-ever philatelic items from the Chinese Qing Dynasty, and one of the most sought-after stamps in world.
We've already had a preview peak at the latter three items: the 1897 Red Revenue Small 2c, the only recorded multiple example of "the Emerald Lady", and the exceptionally rare and exalted United States Airmail, 1918, 24¢ carmine rose & blue, center inverted - aka "the Inverted Jenny."
You can read about those items in our previous exclusive report. But also appearing in the sale is an historic piece of Chinese philately which is just as noteworthy: four "Elephant" Design Plate proofs of the 5 cash black stamp, estimated at HK$ 400,000-500,000 (US$51,488-64,360).
The Elephant design for the 5 cash stamp was one of several different subjects submitted for the first-ever postage stamp in China, back in 1877-1878. As can be seen in the image, it depicts a ceremonial elephant carrying a pot of growing cycas on its back.
According to lore, these plants characterise perpetual change and constant regeneration - two of the fundamental philosophies of Buddhism. Flying above the elephant are two bats; also important as the Chinese for bat is "fu", the same word as for happiness.
Along the same theme, the sounds for the other symbols in the stamps' design signify "an augury of great happiness equaling Heaven." This "Elephant" design apparently merited serious consideration at the time, and went through five separate design stages.
Yet the elephant idea went unused, and the dragon design was favoured for China's first-ever stamp - which, of course, makes this block of four even more significant. According to Interasia, the stamps boast excellent colour and sharp impressions, on delicate thin native laid paper.
Remarkably, the block of four has retained its overall freshness and is well-centred with intact perforations. In terms of condition, there is a "neat, barely perceptible" diagonal crease which crosses the two lower stamps, and light folding along the stamps' horizontal row of perforations.
Despite these minor signs of wear, the quartet is billed by the auction house as being in a "very fine state of conservation for this rare and elusive essay" - and is sure to be yet another highlight in Interasia's embarrassment of riches, this weekend.